In the Way of the Road: The Ecological Consequences of Infrastructure

Alice De Jonge

The vast scope and huge scale of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will change the regional landscape forever. This book explores, and seeks to understand, the nature and impact of the BRI’s ambitious connective vision of infrastructure – its roads, rail, mining, dams, ports, and renewable energy projects. What are the inevitable ecological consequences of such projects, from the initial human activity which creates demand for transport and energy, to the remnants of such projects that remain long after they have been abandoned to the environment?

In Chapter One, the volume’s editors Richard Griffiths and Alice C. Hughes provide an overview of the scope, scale, and nature of BRI infrastructure investment and construction plans. They then take the reader on a journey through the landscape that will witness the realisation of those plans. This journey continues in Chapter Two, written by Elena F. Tracy, which maps both the landscape and the flora and fauna inhabiting it. The reader is taken on a tour along each of the six major BRI economic corridors: (1) New Eurasia Land Bridge, (2) China-Mongolia-Russia, (3) China-Central Asia-West Asia, (4) China-Indochina Peninsula, (5) China-Pakistan, and (6) Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar. As tourist, we are educated in the diversity of the ecologies, and the range of different landscapes, that will be irreversibly altered should BRI ambitions be achieved. 

In Chapter Three, Zach Fitzner turns the conversation to a discussion of strategies and mechanisms for minimising negative impacts of BRI project construction, focussing on wind farms and solar energy projects. Ana Teresa Marques and Joana Bernardino continue the theme in Chapter Four, which presents a case study of onshore wind energy farms in Portugal and their impact on birds, bats, and habitat. The chapter remains firmly focussed on Portugal, and no mention is made of the BRI. Its relevance to the BRI discussion is never made clear. Rather, Chapter Four appears to have been plucked from another context altogether. Whatever lessons the Portuguese experience might contain for those involved in BRI projects should have been made clear. 

Chapters Five and Six enter the water. The Mekong River is the lifeline of Southeast Asia. Significantly, it creates an ecological, economic, and social chain linking Yunnan Province in Southwest China to Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand in Southeast Asia. Whatever happens upstream inevitably impacts lives and livelihoods downstream, from fishing to mobility, agriculture to tourism. Hydropower dams are especially big examples of upstream happenings with lasting, sometimes devastating, impacts. Only recently has attention turned to mechanisms for mitigating some of these impacts. Fish passages, which can save otherwise doomed fish species and populations, and carefully planned and calibrated environmental water allocations (e-flows) are two mechanisms examined by David Dudgeon in Chapter Five. As in the previous two chapters, the deficiencies and failures of mitigation mechanisms are neither ignored nor glossed over, but clearly explained.

Rivers eventually reach the sea, and the landscape where land meets ocean is explored by Richard Griffiths in Chapter Six. Ninety percent of world trade in goods involves marine transport. As world trade expands and the size of the average cargo vessel grows, so also must the building and scale of ports be expanded. Griffiths provides a clear-eyed analysis of what this means for coastal ecosystems.

Chapter Seven takes the reader to the rich and fragile ecosystems of the Arctic. It was in 2018 that an Arctic dimension was expressly added to the BRI, when China’s Arctic Policy white paper unveiled the “Polar Silk Road” (PSR). In the chapter, Alexandre Cornet examines both the potential implications of China’s growing interest in the region and the importance of effective cooperative governance mechanisms for controlling and mitigating the ecological impacts of the PSR. 

The theme of cooperative and multinational governance structures, and the important role such structures play, is continued and developed by Enrique Martínez-Galán in Chapter Eight. Multi-jurisdictional governance structures are essential for sharing knowledge and for sharing the responsibility to control and mitigate environmental and biodiversity impacts of infrastructure projects. Natural ecosystems, especially those which span state borders, are essential to all, yet owned by none. The dilemma of the global commons requires new ways of thinking about valuing and managing natural resources. Cooperative structures, such as those found in the multinational development banks, play an essential role in distributing the financial burden of managing and preserving global commons resources for the common good. 

A “Final Reflections” chapter brings the volume to a satisfying, albeit open-ended, close.   This concluding chapter provides a summative overview of all previous chapters and brings together the different perspectives of their authors. It reinforces what unites them – a clear-eyed recognition of the need for scientific understanding of nature and the extent of the challenges facing the world.  The authors also share an equally clear-eyed recognition that the future depends on choices we make now. 

Despite the often bleak nature of this book’s analysis of the ecological damage being wrought by BRI projects, the reader is left with a feeling of hopeful and motivated optimism.  There are measures which can be and are being taken; there are strategies which are being and could be adopted to mitigate, and perhaps even repair, the damage. The rewards of doing so are rich, and this is driven home by the gloriously illustrated book’s hand-drawn pictures of flora, fauna, and landscapes. The illustrations are lively and engaging – more than enough to forgive the occasional flaw in textual copy-editing.

China’s BRI continues to evolve at a rapid pace. By the time this review is being read, new developments, including the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow will already have begun to shape the BRI in new directions.  As with all recent books on contemporary China, therefore, this book will date quickly, as events overtake its conclusions. It therefore seems right that this book will retain its value as a rich and lasting record of landscapes and ecosystems that are rapidly being lost forever.